William Carlos Williams: Poems

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was raised in New Jersey, completing his medical degree at UPenn, where he met Ezra Pound and h.d., as well as painter Charles Demuth (whose famous “I Saw the Figure Five in Gold” complements Williams’ poem “The Great Figure”). He married Flossie in 1912 and remained interested in “women and the mixed belittlement-adoration accorded them by men (including [himself])” in his poetry. He was against ‘isms,’ particularly the abstruse high modernism of Pound and Eliot, and engaged with them through his poetry. He championed leftist beliefs mixed with an American insistence on individualism, and his local poetry is a stand against those poets who believed they could only create high art by going to Europe. His “characteristic style” emerges around 1923 with “Spring and All,” largely a response to The Waste Land, and focuses on the material world, a love of region and rootedness, and play of syntax and enjambment rather than heteroglossia and fragmentation. His “no ideas but in things” is more parallel to Stevens’ “not ideas about the thing but the thing in itself” than either is to Pound’s “the natural object is always the adequate symbol,” but Stevens’ poems are nevertheless cooler and more philosophical than Williams’ vibrant praxis. Williams’ focus on the angular moment (he often emphasizes time) is also comparable to Pound’s more strictly imagist interest in chiaroscuro of “the luminous detail.”

“THE YOUNG HOUSEWIFE,” 1916

At ten AM the young housewife
moves about in negligee behind
the wooden walls of her husband’s house.
I pass solitary in my car.

Then again she comes to the curb
to call the ice-man, fish-man, and stands
shy, uncorseted, tucking in
stray ends of hair, and I compare her
to a fallen leaf.

The noiseless wheels of my car
rush with a crackling sound over
dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.

The speaker of the poem, likely a doctor driving by a patient’s house, acts as a voyeur with almost x-ray vision, imagining her “behind” (pun intended) the “wooden walls of her husband’s house” while the speaker uses another possessive pronoun to describe his car. The woman exists in an otherwise male space – she does not own her house, she “comes to the curb/ to call the ice-man, fish-man.” Is the “then again” of the second stanza a “usually” or an “in contrast”? The speaker is drawn to her “shy” and “uncorseted” figure. It is striking that the speaker names her (“I compare her to a fallen leaf”) before describing the violent, but also uplifting, erotic tension of his silent finale: “The noiseless wheels of my car/ rush with a crackling sound over/ dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.” In this sense, he both lovingly attends to her (aesthetically), but also problematically replaces her subjectivity with his – she is what he compares her to.

“QUEEN-ANNE’S LACE,” 1921

Her body is not so white as
anemony petals nor so smooth—nor
so remote a thing. It is a field
of the wild carrot taking
the field by force; the grass
does not raise above it.
Here is no question of whiteness,
white as can be, with a purple mole
at the center of each flower.
Each flower is a hand’s span
of her whiteness. Wherever
his hand has lain there is
a tiny purple blemish. Each part
is a blossom under his touch
to which the fibres of her being
stem one by one, each to its end,
until the whole field is a
white desire, empty, a single stem,
a cluster, flower by flower,
a pious wish to whiteness gone over—
or nothing.
The poem riffs on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, but instead of refiguring the metaphors, as Shakespeare does, Williams starts by claiming to reject figuration altogether (“nor so remote a thing”) in favor of a more material experience of his lover’s body. Though he does not use “like” or other similes, he does employ metaphor – he compares her to “a field of the wild carrot.” The phrase “Wherever his hand has lain there is a tiny purple blemish” reminds me of the tragic story “The Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I love the tension between the atomized flowers (“Each part is a blossom under his touch”) and “the whole field is a white desire… or nothing.” It captures, like Woolf often does, the macro- micro- sweep of eros, as well as the self-annihilation of its fulfillment.

SPRING AND ALL, 1923

“SPRING AND ALL”

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast — a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines —

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches —

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind —

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

One by one objects are defined —
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance — Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted they
grip down and begin to awaken

The strange, almost “in medias res” beginning of the poem asks us to question if it is the institution of medicine itself which is contagious. The phrase “lifeless in appearance, sluggish dazed spring approaches” reminds me of the curio fixation in “To Elsie” and “The Dead Baby.” Nature is eroticized in the ambiguous “they,” “naked, cold, uncertain of all save that they enter” – does it mean “which they enter” or “the fact of entering”? The last line is firm, a taking hold. The poem is often considered a response to Eliot’s The Waste Land, suggesting that though spring appears as stasis and dry patches, it lives before it knows it lives (hence the interrupted syntax of several points of the poem). Versus Pound’s “sonorous mellifluousness,” Williams relies on syntax and lineation, the movement within the lines, the jagged enjambment of surfaces and linking words (attention to language made up of objects and links between them).

“TO ELSIE”

The pure products of America
go crazy—
mountain folk from Kentucky

or the ribbed north end of 
Jersey
with its isolate lakes and

valleys, its deaf-mutes, thieves
old names
and promiscuity between

devil-may-care men who have taken
to railroading
out of sheer lust of adventure—

and young slatterns, bathed
in filth
from Monday to Saturday

to be tricked out that night
with gauds
from imaginations which have no

peasant traditions to give them
character
but flutter and flaunt

sheer rags-succumbing without
emotion
save numbed terror

under some hedge of choke-cherry
or viburnum-
which they cannot express—

Unless it be that marriage
perhaps
with a dash of Indian blood

will throw up a girl so desolate
so hemmed round
with disease or murder

that she'll be rescued by an 
agent—
reared by the state and

sent out at fifteen to work in
some hard-pressed
house in the suburbs—

some doctor's family, some Elsie—
voluptuous water
expressing with broken

brain the truth about us—
her great
ungainly hips and flopping breasts

addressed to cheap
jewelry
and rich young men with fine eyes

as if the earth under our feet
were
an excrement of some sky

and we degraded prisoners
destined
to hunger until we eat filth

while the imagination strains
after deer
going by fields of goldenrod in

the stifling heat of September
Somehow
it seems to destroy us

It is only in isolate flecks that
something
is given off

No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car

The poem’s “products” and “sheer rags” explore a country made of surface, without history – the expansion of space but not over much time. The situation “will throw up a girl… some Elsie,” who is “voluptuous water expressing with broken brain the truth about us… while the imagination strains after deer.” This series of natural images conjures a deadening sense of the idealized American pastoral. Another poem that plays on the imagination as a feature of the objective world, in conversation with the more abstract and negative portrayals of the high modernists.

“THE RED WHEELBARROW”

so much depends
upona red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

The structure of the poem’s enjambment places the first line visually “upon” the word “upon.” The word “depends” is enjambed, freezing the piece in the Keatsian eternal present. In the next three lines, the adjectives that modify the objects are enjambed. I have heard of this poem being read as “the American flag,” the red, white, and blue of the water. The prepositions with/beside are visually balanced against the articles a/the. It also investigates the pressure placed on each word in the imagist poem. It is hypostatic (treats abstract language as concrete linkages – the term is also medical for the gathering of fluids by gravity) in the religious (trinity) and phenomenological (real) senses, whereas Pound’s “In A Station of the Metro” is more paratactic (dependent on linear concatenation without explanation). It frustrates the symbolist impulse to isolate one thing, pregnant with meaning, that is not in contact with others by presenting a series of objects, presented with equanimity, that touch at their boundaries.

“THE DEAD BABY,” 1927

Sweep the house
under the feet of the curious
holiday seekers–
sweep under the table and the bed
the baby is dead–

The mother’s eye’s where she sits
by the window, unconsoled–
have purple bags under them
the father–
tall, wellspoken, pitiful
is the abler of these two–

Sweep the house clean
here is one who has gone up
(unproblematically)
to heave, blindly
by force of the facts–
a clean sweep
is one way of expressing it–

Hurry up! any minute
they will be bringing it
from the hospital–
a white model of our lives
a curiosity
surrounded by fresh flowers

This poem makes of the dead baby a horrible but fascinating Victorian curio or specimen, “surrounded by fresh flowers.” The clean “sweep” of its death is striking against the obsessive “sweeping” done as a coping mechanism. It is reminiscent of Heaney’s poems about the blackened and reddened bog bodies in interesting ways.

“THIS IS JUST TO SAY,” 1934

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

The word “Just” in the title could imply a casual tone (the note left on the counter), but also a sense of “justice” – it is “good and right” to say so, as if the meal were Communion. The speaker negotiates a marital moment, having succumbed to one sensual temptation (eating sweet, cold, delicious plums from the icebox), if not another (the deliciousness is erotically charged). The poem speaks against an imagist poem like “In A Station of the Metro,” in which the two images are urban/Japanese, vs. here, the ordinary American suburban home is mined for the concrete detail.

THE WEDGE, 1944

“A SORT OF A SONG”

Let the snake wait under
his weed
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,
sleepless.
— through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
the rocks.

The poem is famous for the line “no ideas but in things,” juxtaposed against the Saxifrage, a flower that grows in rocky and inclement places. Williams’ “no ideas but in things” and “nothing good save the new” can be compared to Pound’s “the natural object is always the perfect symbol” and “make it new.” The mottos demonstrate the way in which Williams maintains an interest in throwing out the old symbolism and replacing it with sensual materialism, while Pound wants to remake the old and reinvigorate symbols of the past.

“THE DANCE (IN BRUEGHEL’S GREAT PICTURE)

In Brueghel’s great picture, The Kermess,
the dancers go round, they go round and
around, the squeal and the blare and the
tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles
tipping their bellies (round as the thick-
sided glasses whose wash they impound)
their hips and their bellies off balance
to turn them. Kicking and rolling
about the Fair Grounds, swinging their butts, those
shanks must be sound to bear up under such
rollicking measures, prance as they dance
in Brueghel’s great picture, The Kermess.

The poem’s enjambment circles and swings around, imitating the dancers and bringing it all around in one full circle with the repetition of “Kermess.” The phrase “must be sound” puns on the absent music in both the painting and the poem.

“BURNING THE CHRISTMAS GREENS”

Their time past, pulled down
cracked and flung to the fire
–go up in a roar

All recognition lost, burnt clean
clean in the flame, the green
dispersed, a living red,
flame red, red as blood wakes
on the ash–

and ebbs to a steady burning
the rekindled bed become
a landscape of flame

At the winter’s midnight
we went to the trees, the coarse
holly, the balsam and
the hemlock for their green

At the thick of the dark
the moment of the cold’s
deepest plunge we brought branches
cut from the green trees

to fill our need, and over
doorways, about paper Christmas
bells covered with tinfoil
and fastened by red ribbons

we stuck the green prongs
in the windows hung
woven wreaths and above pictures
the living green. On the

mantle we built a green forest
and among those hemlock
sprays put a herd of small
white deer as if they

were walking there. All this!
and it seemed gentle and good
to us. Their time past,
relief! The room bare. We

stuffed the dead grate
with them upon the half burnt out
log’s smouldering eye, opening
red and closing under them

and we stood there looking down.
Green is a solace
a promise of peace, a fort
against the cold (though we

did not say so) a challenge
above the snow’s
hard shell. Green (we might
have said) that, where

small birds hide and dodge
and lift their plaintive
rallying cries, blocks for them
and knocks down

the unseeing bullets of
the storm. Green spruce boughs
pulled down by a weight of
snow–Transformed!

Violence leaped and appeared.
Recreant! roared to life
as the flame rose through and
our eyes recoiled from it.

In the jagged flames green
to red, instant and alive. Green!
those sure abutments . . . Gone!
lost to mind

and quick in the contracting
tunnel of the grate
appeared a world! Black
mountains, black and red–as

yet uncolored–and ash white,
an infant landscape of shimmering
ash and flame and we, in
that instant, lost,

breathless to be witnesses,
as if we stood
ourselves refreshed among
the shining fauna of that fire.

The poem begins by treating the greens as things whose time is past, then circles back to the time they were gathered “to fill our need.” He recalls the artifice of the deer, “as if they were walking there,” repeated in the last line with “as if we stood ourselves refreshed among the shining fauna of that fire.” With this repetition, we are invited to explore the speaker and the others as part of the artifice, believing themselves reinvigorated by the end of Christmas. The “scene” in the flames also parallels the “scene” of the deer figurines. It would be interesting to compare this with Larkin’s stark atheism in poems like “High Windows” or the fire scenes of Eliot’s “Four Quartets.”

PICTURES FROM BRUEGHEL, 1962

“LANDSCAPE WITH THE FALL OF ICARUS”

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
near

the edge of the sea
concerned
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

The event of Icarus’ drowning slowly spirals in from wide scope to narrow, atomized event, with the middle stanza “concerned with itself” and the following one going from cause (“sun”) to effect (“melted the wings’ wax). Compare this to Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts.”

“THE DANCE (WHEN THE SNOW FALLS)”

When the snow falls the flakes spin upon the long axis
that concerns them most intimately
two and two to make a dance

the mind dances with itself,
taking you by the hand,
your lover follows
there are always two,

yourself and the other,
the point of your shoe setting the pace,
if your break away and run
the dance is over

Breathlessly you will take
another partner
better or worse who will keep
at your side, at your stops

whirls and glides until he too
leaves off
on his way down as if
there were another direction

gayer, more carefree
spinning face to face but always down
with each other secure
only in each other's arms

But only the dance is sure!
make it your own.
Who can tell
what is to come of it?

in the woods of your
own nature whatever
twig interposes, and bare twigs
have an actuality of their own

this flurry of the storm
that holds us,
plays with us and discards us
dancing, dancing as may be credible.

The line “only the dance is sure” reminds me of Yeats’ “the dancer or the dance” and Eliot’s reference to dance in “Four Quartets.”

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